Monasteries provide alternative vacation destinations

’Tis the season for Americans to take off work, load up the car and head out on the open road for summer vacation. The goal: a happy, relaxed and renewing experience.

With high travel and lodging expenses, however, spending can add up, and finances can lead to stress, even during what should be a carefree time.

According to a 2012 American Express survey, Americans spend an average of $1,180 per person on vacation. In addition, a 2010 study of Dutch vacationers, published in the Applied Research in Quality of Life journal, said the only vacationers who showed greater happiness levels after taking a trip than before were those who reported “a very relaxed holiday trip.” In fact, the same study found, most people were happier getting ready for their trips than actually taking them.

A fix for Catholics on both fronts (keeping expenses down and staying relaxed) can be found in America’s hidden gem of monastic hospitality. By lodging at a monastery, the faithful can transform travel plans into a spiritual journey and find a quiet place of rest for the weary traveler to renew both body and soul.

Restful experience

“Monastery guesthouses are a very well-kept secret,” said Robert J. Regalbuto, author of “Monastery Guest Houses of North America: A Visitor’s Guide” (Countryman Press, $18.95). He told Our Sunday Visitor that he has been visiting monasteries since he was 14. “They not only provide the physical rest, but a spiritual renewal, so it’s a true vacation.”

Many Western monasteries, such as the Benedictines and the Trappists, follow the tradition of hospitality contained in the Rule of St. Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, said he takes the opportunity to take an extra day and make an individual retreat when his travels bring him nearby a monastery.

“Staying at a monastery is a time of restful solitude and sharing in the monastic experience,” he said. “Not only is it cheaper than staying at a hotel, but you combine the advantages of traveling with a spiritual experience.”

Ahlquist said staying at a monastery can turn a summer trip into a spiritual adventure. He recalled meeting the grandson of Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton’s friend, while visiting Downside Abbey in England.

A taste of monastic life

Staying at a monastery means a guest should partake a little of the monk’s way of life, and not treat the visit like a Catholic hostel or a cheap hotel.

Father Dwight Longenecker, author, blogger and parish priest at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C., took part in the monastics’ hospitality during a pilgrimage in 1987.

“All I did was join in the Divine Office and the routine of their monastic life for the time that I was there,” he said, explaining that at the time, he was an Anglican priest hitchhiking his way across Europe on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

A monastery, much like a family, has its own community life to take care of, even as they open their house to guests. So guests will discover each monastery differs in the accommodations and meals they provide as well as “house rules” (quiet hours, off-limits areas, and other expectations of behavior).

“Monasteries vary differently,” Father Longenecker said. “Some have places for families to stay, but for the most part it would be for an individual man or woman to go on retreat at a monastery.”

St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C., for example, lacks a separate guesthouse. It provides a number of rooms for men alongside the monks in the monastery, but only has two rooms with private bathrooms that could serve female guests.

“We have room if they come alone, but they’re limited stays,” said Benedictine Father Christopher Wyvill, guestmaster at St. Anselm’s. He said most guests are looking for a private retreat or a place to stay and experience the monastic atmosphere while in Washington.

Father Wyvill said guests staying at the abbey should take advantage of the peaceful environs, and that they are able to join the monks anytime for prayer, Mass and meals — as long as they’re punctual.

“It’s totally up to them,” he said. “But if they have meals, they should have them with the monks on time.”

Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Hulbert, Okla., has accommodations for men, and a guesthouse that can house women and families. Female guests and families, however, take their meals separately from the monks in the guesthouse.

Benedictine Father Francis Bethel, the assistant guestmaster, told OSV that the monastery tries to serve both the material and spiritual needs of travelers, and monks are available for spiritual direction.

“We try to receive them as Jesus Christ,” Father Bethel said. “People need more than ever a place to get away and get a sense of the depth of what Christianity’s about.”

The monastery offers guests plenty of opportunities for silence, retreat and to witness monastic life. Guests can join the monks for prayer and Mass.

“We live for God, and people can learn how to eat meals, and recreate, and live in God’s presence a little bit,” he said.

Handling payments

Monasteries, like homes, have their own general rules, such as to maintain general courtesy and respect for quiet hours, other guests and the rhythms of monastic life.

“Our home is open to anyone who comes through our door, for whatever they need,” said Sister Gabriella of Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio. “We put ourselves at their disposal while also keeping to our monastic schedule.”

Christ the Bridegroom monastery is in the Byzantine monastic tradition, which Sister Gabriella said has a special focus on providing hospitality to guests.

“We try to be attentive to their needs and feed them both in body and soul,” she said.

Monasteries rely on donations in order to provide hospitality. Some monasteries inform guests upfront how much a suggested donation for the rooms (such as $25, $50 or $60 per night). Others give guests an opportunity to offset the cost of their stay in other ways.

“We typically rely on the gifts that people bring,” Sister Gabriella said.

Sister Gabriella said an offering, such as food or paper products or even work, to cover the costs of a stay would be welcome. She recommended that people ask the monastery what would be an appropriate offering when arranging a visit, and said that most monks understand that guests will give what they can afford.

“Check out different monasteries and go make a stay somewhere,” Sister Gabriella said. “Monastic communities always desire to be that welcoming Christ with open arms. But the first thing you have to do is call.” 

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York.